“From Ethiopia to Haiti to Papua New Guinea, we are seeing the damage from El Niño, and we believe the impact on public health is likely to continue… even after El Niño winds down.”
– Richard Brennan, Director of WHO’s Emergency Risk Management & Humanitarian Response Department
In the first installation of the El Niño series, we looked at the wind and water mechanics of El Niño, and how it can create abnormal weather patterns around the world. For some people, these weather patterns are not so terrible. An unseasonably warm winter and a less stormy summer – which is what much of North America can thank El Niño for – may seem unambiguously appealing. However, one must remember that North America basically won the weather lottery. The fact remains that the lives of at least 60 million people elsewhere are currently endangered.
Now, El Niño by itself is not the problem. Rather, El Niño can become extremely dangerous in the way that it interacts with other factors, such as seasonal monsoons and periodic dry seasons. These are weather patterns that people all around the world depend on for their livelihood and existence. One poor harvest can result in thousands of farmers struggling to make ends meet; but in some developing nations where small-scale farming provides nearly 100% of the local diet, one poor harvest can result in millions of hungry people searching for food.
Because no two El Niños are the same, it is difficult to predict the precise impacts of El Niño and to plan ahead. What scientists do know for a fact, however, is that El Niño conditions (circulation pattern changes and warmer ocean temperatures) drastically increase the probability of extreme weather in certain regions.
So far, this year’s El Niño has wreaked havoc in two major (and paradoxical) ways: droughts and floods. At the moment, drought conditions persist in Central America, the Caribbean, southern Africa, Western Pacific, Indonesia, and Philippines. Meanwhile, flooding conditions persist in Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, the southern Horn of Africa, eastern equatorial Africa, China and the central Pacific. According to the WHO report on El Niño, both droughts and floods may trigger food insecurity and cause significant population displacement. Extremely hot and dry conditions may result in heat waves and wildfires, thus exacerbating respiratory diseases and heat stress. Warmer temperatures can also spread vector-borne disease to highland areas that have not been exposed to these diseases before. On the other hand, flooding can damage or close health facilities, which restricts access to healthcare and aggravates disease outbreaks. Flooding can also destroy sanitation infrastructure, thus promoting diarrheal diseases and the spread of pathogens.
To hone in on a few places where El Niño has made its presence felt, there are currently large swaths of central and southern America that are experiencing vast displacement. In the Gran Chaco region – which spans parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina – above-average rainfall is anticipated to continue from November 2015 to May 2016. At least 170,000 people have already been displaced due to intense flooding, and that number is expected to rise. In Paraguay alone, at least 16,000 families have been displaced from low-lying areas in makeshift shelters without adequate infrastructure or services. Meanwhile, in southern Brazil, 12 cities have already been flooded, with 8,000 people evacuated. At least 6,000 people in Uruguay and 20,000 in Argentina have also been displaced.
The African continent has also been crippled by events associated with El Niño. More than 12,000 cases of cholera have been reported in Tanzania as a result of unusually heavy rains. The Horn of Africa has experienced its worst drought in 30 years, and Ethiopia has especially struggled. El Niño has triggered drought in large parts of Ethiopia while simultaneously causing flooding in other areas – the combined effect has resulted in 80% of the country’s crops failing. An estimated 1.4 million children and 700,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women face malnutrition in 2016. By the end of the year, more than eight million people are expected to need food assistance. But food scarcity is not the only concern in Ethiopia – the limited availability of safe water means that people are allocating their water to drinking and cooking, while neglecting personal hygiene. This is fostering a breeding ground for communicable diseases: thirteen districts of Ethiopia are affected by measles, with 258 outbreaks and 31,000 cases reported; a scabies outbreak of more than 300,000 reported cases is ongoing in Amhara and Tigray regions; and a local outbreak of meningitis C is ongoing in the Kule refugee camp in Gambella. The number of cases reported is expected to rise as more people become food-insecure and are thus at higher risk of contracting disease.
As the effects of El Niño continue to play out in much of the developing world, the United Nations and World Health Organization are urging strong action by national and international organizations to offset the human costs. The western world – left largely unaffected by El Niño – may have the biggest role of all to play. An emerging scientific consensus now claims that climate change increases the frequency of extreme El Niño events. More on that topic to come in the next and last installation of this series.